The all-important question of the showerhead has been the last to be resolved in my bathroom.  Let us pass lightly over Saturday’s struggle over toilet paper holders.  Everything else in the bathroom is going to be so very special that I’ve become convinced that the toilet paper holder has to be special too.  Although the weight and beautiful nickel finish of the Rohl Cisal faucets I chose is truly impressive, somehow none of the choices of toilet paper holders in that line (the loop, the stirrup, and the classic spring-loaded) really, well, spoke to me.  I was also shocked at the idea of paying $150 or so for such a thing.  By the time I’d finished shopping on line, I found myself paying around $100 for this:

Kohler Purist toilet tissue holder K-14444

Kohler Purist toilet tissue holder in Vibrant Polished Nickel; image source: us.kohler.com

I was wondering about functionality, but reviewers of a similar style on Amazon.com report “the TP unwinds with complete ease” and furthermore point out that the holder can be installed at any angle you choose.  The third of these five-star reviews describes a first encounter with a vertical toilet paper holder in Paris:  “Can you fall in love with a toilet paper holder? I did.”  Sold.

Let me note, for this price – and $100 was the discount price from Amazon – it had better be Made in the U.S.A.  I will report!

In fact, Rohl Cisal does have something in the same vertical style, identified as a “spare toilet roll holder” – however, for my particular space, I prefer the less bulbous design of the Kohler for this purpose.  Here is the Rohl:

Rohl # CIS19

Rohl Cisal spare toilet paper holder, # CIS19; image source: rohlhome.com

What would Sigmund Freud say?  What would Thorstein Veblen say?  What would all kinds of people say?

Does it help at all that I have a lesser, admirably cheap, standard TP holder in my upstairs bathroom, and the fake chrome finish has worn off the spindle over the years, revealing the plastic beneath, and every time I change the roll, this seems like something of an affront?  Probably not.

Let’s move on.

The question of the showerhead, being much more about the physical experience of the shower than mere looks, is something that I hope more people will understand as a legitimate problem.  My research on the Bathrooms Forum at gardenweb.com – along with the Plumbing Forum and the Kitchen Forum, a great resource for appliance obsessives – had turned up more than one endorsement of the higher-end Speakman showerhead.  On Sunday, I received a promotional e-mail from Restoration Hardware advertising a sale on bath hardware.  RH has loads of tasteful stuff, but I’ve been studiously avoiding them all through this bathroom re-do, just because they can feel so ubiquitous.  Also – have you noticed – despite their costly prices, so many of their items are Made in China.  Still, I thought I’d better see what they have, now that things are wrapping up, and I found this, presented in RH’s typically high-testosterone fashion, the Speakman Ultra 8-jet Showerhead:

Speakman Ultra 8-jet showerhead from Restoration Hardware

Speakman Ultra 8-jet showerhead from Restoration Hardware; image source: restorationhardware.com

For the sale, it was marked down to $239 from $299 – this includes the arm and flange, which are worth around $25.  $239 still seemed rather steep, but the folks on Gardenweb had emphasized that you have to get the more expensive Speakman, and it was available in my preferred finish of polished nickel, so maybe this was the way to go.

Crucially, the RH website describes the showerhead as having “Low flow spray option (2.5 GPM)”, and its “More About the Collection” PDF contains this carefully-worded paragraph:

Flow Restrictor Instructions:
The flow restrictor device limits the amount of flow in your showerhead to 2.5 gallons per minute. The small orifices may become clogged with scale and other minerals found in potable water. If it is necessary to remove the flow restrictor, remove the showerhead from the shower arm and unscrew the ball joint coupling nut from on top of showerhead. Push out the flow control from the small hole in the backside of the swivel ball. Clean the flow control as necessary. Upon reassembly, make sure the flow control is fully inserted and all threaded connections are tightened down before using.

Let me explain something:  my house has undergone major flooding three times in the past six years.  The field across the road frequently has standing water.  My own water is pumped out of my well, through my showers, sinks, toilets, dish and clothes washers, and then drains out the side of the house into the septic tank, whence it returns to the earth.  I think that my responsibility to the environment certainly includes using phosphate-free soaps and avoiding harsh chemicals, but for goodness’ sake, there is too much water around here.  I shouldn’t have to conserve it as though I were living in the Southwest, or dependent on a municipal treatment system.  Surely, if I’m living in what often feels like a swamp, I can have a nice, strong shower.

My next stop was the Speakman website, where the Anystream Icon 64 Spray Showerhead, also available in polished nickel,  looked like the equivalent to the  “Ultra” at Restoration Hardware:

Speakman Icon showerhead SS-2251-PN

Speakman Icon showerhead; image source: speakmancompany.com

However, I noted some differences:

1.  The placement of the SPEAKMAN ANYSTREAM lettering on the face plate varies between the Ultra and the Icon models.

2.  More importantly, the Ultra at Restoration Hardware appears to be designed with more of a faceted nut at its back end to facilitate taking it apart. In fact, judging from customer images on Amazon of older Speakman Anystream packaging, the Restoration Hardware Ultra appears to be simply the older model of the Icon.

3.  Adding to my questions, the Speakman company generally describes the Icon thus:

GENERAL SPECIFICATION Water conserving pressure compensating Autoflo® device reduces flow to 2.5 GPM/9.46LPM maximum, to meet existing ASME A112.18.1/CSA B125.1 Standard.

In other words, the showerhead as a whole is described as a “water conserving device”.  Uh-oh.

4.  Furthermore, in its cleaning instructions for the Icon, there is no talk from Speakman of removing a flow restrictor:

In certain water conditions, mineral deposits may form. To keep your showerhead like new we recommend soaking the showerhead in 2 parts white vinegar and 1 part water for about 1 hour or more, depending on the amount of buildup. Rinse thoroughly. Brush off any remaining mineral deposits if necessary.

5.  The Icon, in polished nickel, can currently be had for $159 on Amazon (chrome is around $125).  This price difference is really too large to ignore.  Restoration Hardware charges a $25 shipping fee for its Ultra as well – with tax, this brings the total “sale” price close to $300 after all.

The question is:  can the re-designed, sleeker Speakman Icon still be taken apart, if necessary, to extract a flow restrictor?  Is it necessary to pay, +/-, a 100% premium to Restoration Hardware in order to get a hackable showerhead?  Readers, I have ordered the Icon, and I will report.  Don’t hold your collective breath, because it is coming “FREE Super Saver”…

UPDATE:  It is possible to disassemble the Speakman Icon showerhead and remove a little white plastic device that I believe to be  the flow restrictor.  I had to use needle-nose pliers to get mine out, and it got somewhat deformed, so I really don’t recommend doing this unless you plan to keep the showerhead and don’t plan to reinstall the flow restrictor.  The resulting shower is really lovely, though not what I would call torrential.  Truth be told, it did not seem so very much stronger than the perfectly respectable spray that came out of the showerhead before I tinkered with it.  I think this may simply be because of my own limited water pressure.  Sigh.  The shower head is extremely heavy, looks handsome, and adjusts very, very smoothly.

And:  the expensive Kohler TP holder is, alas, Made in China – excuse me, “crafted” in China, as it says on the box.  But I have to say it looks great, and I’m now a convert to the upright Euro-style TP holder.  The TP dispenses perfectly, and there are no more little fumbling annoyances while changing the roll.  I do not regret my extravagance – in fact, I think I, too, am in love.  Success!

(I tried to figure out, from the packaging and any markings on the showerhead, where it was Made, but I guess that’s a secret…)

Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens

Image via Wikipedia

To continue with the literary theme:  who knew that Charles Dickens was a confirmed, lifelong deco-maniac?  Not I, until I read Hilary Macaskill’s very entertaining article in The Guardian based on her recent book, Charles Dickens at Home.  Evidently Mr. Dickens had a passionate interest in accessories, wallpaper, paint colors, rugs, upholstery, faux-finishing, lighting fixtures, kitchen appliances, and bathroom design (especially the new, high-tech luxury of the “Cold Shower” and, of course, its attendant shower curtains).  Like so many others, he was inspired to make some changes in his house by a visit to Italy.  Sloppy wallpapering jobs pained him.  He kept up with the latest in media technology:  in the 1840′s, this meant installing a letterbox in the front door.  Touchingly, he died just after installing a long-wished-for conservatory at his house and was able to enjoy it only briefly.

His taste for beauty and comfort led George Eliot to say something very sarcastic…  you know, I never enjoyed reading her books nearly as much as people told me I should.

February 7 of this year will be the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth.  You can buy Charles Dickens at Home here.  I certainly will, as soon as I’ve made some progress with the huge stacks already next to my bed – no new books allowed at the moment!

Another idea that I’ve been excited about – though it will have to wait until after the bathroom is finished – is using hand-marbled paper as wallpaper, in my case perhaps just for one wall in the dining room.  Imagine what a unique look one could get.  It would be like a wall of faux marble blocks and would not be as insanely expensive as one might think.  I’ve currently got lovely sample sheets to mull over from this craftsperson, Iris Nevins, in New Jersey:

http://www.marblingpaper.com/

I took a bookbinding class once, when I was living in Montreal, and concluded that binding books is best left to others.  Sewing the signatures was sort of fun, but getting the cover right… a nightmare that never quite ended.  I have the pieces in a bag somewhere!  I do still love the beautiful materials.  The atelier that held the class, La Tranchefile, was extremely elegant.  I remember, the last time I visited before moving back to the States, there was a display of notebooks in its boutique that were bound in tanned but untrimmed stingray, with tiny, subtle, exquisite beading at the edges.  They were made by our teacher, Odette Drapeau.

Besides binding or re-binding books, La Tranchefile will make custom boxes for collectors’ books and artwork.  Their website is, unfortunately, only in French.  I remember that Mme. Drapeau was so nice about switching into English when I needed it for the lessons.  The place has changed ownership since I was there, but it doesn’t sound like it’s changed much otherwise.  Bookbinding seemed to be a matter of greater interest up in Quebec than it is here in the States – I wonder why?

“Tranchefile” in French means the “headband” of the book – that colorful strip of trim at the head and foot of a hardcover book, just behind the binding.  So often they are red, but of course, if you’re doing the binding, they can be any color you want!

http://www.latranchefile.com/

How embarrassing to notice that I’ve taken almost a month between posts.  Things really do move in a geological time frame here at the Stone House.  I didn’t go away for the holidays, and the only event of note was the Boxing Day open house I put on for friends and neighbors.  I ordered in two sides of American smoked salmon from Mackenzie, which were fantastic – I think I liked the gravlax style even better than the plain – roasted a couple of grass-fed beef tenderloins for sandwiches, put out various cookies and cheeses and so forth. I don’t eat beef, but my little dog certainly does, and I’m hoping the fact they were grass-fed means that the cattle had a nicer, more natural life before they became, um, tenderloins.  Literally my closest neighbors here are cows.

This berry trifle recipe was a big success – some of the comments say to make it with a pint of whipping cream rather than a quart, but I say, go for the full quart.  I used frozen berries, and they worked beautifully:  Berry Trifle by Tyler Florence.

This punch was very popular too:  Pomegranate-Champagne Punch by Martha Stewart.  I made it with Freixenet – I think you would have to be crazy to put real Champagne into a punch, though of course Martha’s minions claim they did.  It was lovely and zingy and indeterminately fruity, and reminded me of the church basement punch of my childhood – but in a very good way.

Anyway, back to the bathroom!

The decision to use the Philippe Starck bathtub initially led me to plan for the whole bathroom to be very Euro and modern.  I was thinking of using the IKEA Höllviken sink, which I still think is great:

ikea hollviken sink

image from ikea.com

This would of course go with a modern, single-hole, lever-handle faucet.  I especially like the Kohler Purist with the attractive little curve to the handle (there is also the same faucet with a straight handle):

Kohler Purist faucet, K-14402-4

Kohler Purist faucet, K-14402-4, image from kohler.com

The sink would require a new vanity, which would probably be dark wood…  I was having thoughts about glass tiles, until I found out how much they cost…  Something was holding me back, and I think it was that, although this bathroom would have been neat, fashionable, and a huge improvement, it would have been a little banal. It also would have been a departure from the essentially traditional style of the house – such a departure, I think, can be OK in a bathroom, but is something to think about carefully.

So there was something of an impasse before I found “the” sink.  I am an eBay queen; I live in a rural situation and do a lot of shopping on line.  I can’t remember what search turned this thing up, because it wasn’t what I’d been looking for, but as soon as I saw its photo, I knew that I had to have it, and that all plans would be rearranged to accommodate it.

I present to you the Kohler Artist Editions Imperial Blue™ design on Vintage® self-rimming lavatory, which, as Kohler puts it so well, “offers a striking focal point portraying the traditional strength and wisdom found in the Ming Dynasty porcelain vase that served as its inspiration.”  How could I resist a Ming dragon in my bathroom sink?

Kohler Ming Dragon sink

photo source: us.kohler.com

The list price for this sink is just shocking:  strictly for the One Percent.  The price I paid on eBay was much better, though still a jump up from IKEA.  But what price total, killing glamor?

The dragon sink seemed to call for a more traditional style of faucet.  Of course, I wanted something similarly luxe and unusual that could stand up to the fabulosity of the sink.  After much research, I decided I liked this faucet sold by Rohl, in the polished nickel finish:

Rohl Cisal faucet # AC51

photo source: rohlhome.com

 

It is from their Cisal line, which is manufactured in Italy.  The deciding moment in favor of this faucet came when I closely inspected this photo on Flickr, taken by a fellow Hotel Eden bathroom enthusiast… what style of faucet do you see there, next to the sink?  (Note also the wall phone installed next to the toilet, no doubt for answering those super-urgent film production questions.)

Through diligent Googling, I was able to find the faucet at around half price.

So now I have a bathroom sink whose retail price is a measurable percentage of what I paid for my entire house.  Incidentally, happy Year of the Dragon!

Before I begin, let me say that I’m not immune to the irony of spending what I think of as big money to refurbish a functioning bathroom when Vali Myers, by the evidence of my own eyes, lived the most joyous and creative life imaginable above Positano with no plumbing whatsoever, drinking and washing from a pure mountain waterfall and answering “the call of nature”, I believe, off a cliff.  However, the motto of the ancient Greeks, Know thyself, is still useful, and the truth is that, while my heart admires the wild and bohemian, the rest of me is firmly rooted in the bourgeois and loves plumbing, endless hot water, privacy… In the midst of our wonderful, wine-soaked afternoon at Vali’s, inevitably I had to take a pee, and I wandered so far from the compound in search of a private spot that I almost slid off the mountain and only saved myself by grabbing a fortunately-placed bush.  What a way that would have been to go.

I bought my house, here in upstate New York, back in the summer of ’02 and, at the time, intended immediately to make some improvements to the downstairs bathroom.  Of course, I didn’t get around to it.  I’m acutely aware that my tenth anniversary of owning the house is coming up soon, and I would like to have things looking better by then.

First, let’s take a look at how things are.   The floor tiles, when I bought the house, were real terracotta and pretty charming until, within a short time, they started to loosen and break.  Eventually I had them taken up and replaced by dark-stained pine.  Much discussion ensued over how best to seal the wood.  I actually bought a gallon of latex polyurethane but became so intimidated and irritated by the conflicting instructions of the manufacturer, versus local advice, that I decided – against ALL advice – simply to use a beeswax based wood conditioner instead.  The floor has been in place for around a year now; it does, of course, require occasional re-polishing, but it looks better every time I do it.   Perhaps disaster awaits, but for now I’m very pleased.

The biggest source of discontent has always been the tan plastic shower surround.  Behold:

Its tub is far too shallow to take a nice bath.  I could never decide exactly what to replace it with – certainly something white, but which?  Everything affordable at the local big-box stores seemed to be either shallow as well, or just ugly – Jacuzzi jets, strange decorative contours, etc.

In February 2010, I found my answer.  I had traveled to the Berlinale film festival as part of a film’s production team (the film was, incidentally, directed by my traveling companion of the Eden Hotel – perhaps some of that Fellini genius rubbed off on him on our one-night stay).  We stayed at the Movenpick Hotel – director and two co-producers in one room – this is independent film, not Hollywood – and all fell in love with the bathtub, which was gleaming white acrylic, simple, rectangular, and oh, so luxuriously deep.  It turned out to be a Philippe Starck design for Duravit and, astonishingly, not an impossible dream in terms of its price.  Besides the excitement of premiering the film, I think that tub was the best thing about Berlin.  The Berlinale is prestigious but also enormous and overwhelming, and the weather was utterly grim.  Teams of men with jackhammers had been set to work clearing ice from the sidewalks, because at some point the city had run out of salt.

So, having discovered the dream bathtub, my design direction was clear:  something rather Euro.

Bathtub # 700092; photo from http://www.duravit.us

This same trip to Italy, in the late spring of 2001, involved further exploration of the Amalfi coast and a visit to Pompeii – impossible to skip but strangely unaffecting, perhaps because of the crowds and also because of my own confusion, in the vast network of ruins, over what was original and what had been reconstructed or heavily restored.  The Greco-Roman ruins at Paestum, which were virtually deserted and had beautiful roses growing among them, had been more enjoyable, in part, I suppose, because I had fewer expectations attached to them.

At this point, our group had gone its separate ways, and my traveling companion and I found ourselves with a last night in Rome before our flight home.  We didn’t have a hotel reservation, and I lobbied hard to stay, just for this one night, at the Hotel Eden, which my trusty Fodor’s had informed me was “superlative”, had a rooftop bar with a famous view over the city, and – the unanswerable selling point – had been the favorite hotel of Federico Fellini.  We walked in off the street and were given what must have been one of their prettiest rooms.  I’ve been looking at the hotel’s website just now, and none of the rooms photographed on the site have that wonderful green wallpaper.  I hope this doesn’t mean they’ve gotten rid of it!

The sheets were linen… this may have been a first for me, but it was not a last, because I got a couple sets as soon as I could after getting home, and have never looked back.  Linen sheets are not cheap, but they last forever (so far), and I’m surprised they’re not much more popular.  I can still feel the warm air as I sit on the window seat and eat my room service breakfast… heaven.  My traveling companion was complaining about the expense, but once in a while, something really is worth it.

Ordinarily, I’m not given to photographing bathrooms, but this one was so spectacularly be-marbled that I had to document it:

It’s been my idea of the ideal bathroom ever since.  Such an elegant combination of luxury and simplicity.  I see, on Flickr and elsewhere, that others have felt compelled to photograph their Eden bathrooms as well!  But I think ours was the very, very best.

I don’t know what the Eden’s ownership situation was ten years ago, but I see that today it is owned by the Starwood chain, and I hope it doesn’t mean that things there are somehow a little less fabulous, because I would dearly love to stay again one day.  Or is it better, when something is perfect, not to try to go back?

I recently downloaded years’ worth of old photos – everything since I’ve had a digital camera, which was early 2001 – from a semi-forgotten hard drive onto my laptop.  The images flashed on the screen in front of me as they were imported into iPhoto, and it was sort of like a near-death experience, life flashing before my eyes!

I must say, one of the most memorable and fabulous episodes in that life is the trip I took with a lively and creative group of people to Italy, on the occasion of the burial of the ashes of the poet Gregory Corso in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.  After the events surrounding the interment, we drove south to Positano, to visit Vali Myers.  Born in Australia, Vali was a ballet dancer and artist who moved to Paris as a young girl – a phase recorded in the 1954 photography book Love on the Left Bank, by Ed van der Elsken, available in reprint here.  

She had later lived, at times, in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, which is how various people in our party knew her, before retiring to her tiny homestead high in the mountains above Positano with a flock of little white dogs, some chickens, and her considerably younger lover and major domo, Gianni.  Vali was seventy years old at the time that I met her.  I was entirely intimidated by everything that I’d heard about her – friends with Cocteau! with Salvador Dali!  subject of films and a book! -  but she turned out to be extremely nice.

The approach to Vali’s hideaway.  This was quite a challenging journey, possible only on foot, and of course we were laden with a picnic and numerous bottles of wine.  In certain spots, if you’d slipped, you could have broken your neck.  I think I took this photo about halfway up.

Vali’s remarkable compound sat in a ravine, at the foot of a cliff and at the edge of another.  Her tiny, domed house, I was told, had been built as a folly by a local aristocrat in the 18th century.  Vali had a sleeping loft in the folly, and Gianni had his own annex.  There were various outbuildings for livestock, whose numbers had gradually dwindled over the years.  Especially, there had been a donkey.  It was very sad when the donkey died, and getting rid of the body had also been extremely problematic.  I think there may have been a similar problem with a pig friend.  

photo by James Rasin

Vali in her house, with dear friend Bobby Yarra, who led us on this visit.  Bobby brought a cassette tape of Tin Pan Alley songs to play on Vali’s battery powered boom box, and they danced outdoors as they used to do at the Chelsea (there was no electricity at Vali’s folly).  You can see why the locals supposedly called her the Witch of Positano.  I would hope that this was an affectionate nickname, because she really was a dear, kind lady.  She called everyone “love”, in her Australian accent.  

She took us up to her sleeping loft and showed us some of her intricate, meticulous, rather shamanistic, pen and ink drawings.  She explained that they could take months or years to complete.  As I recall, all the shading of the forms was composed of infinitesimally tiny dots.

photo by James Rasin

Gianni Menichetti, outside his annex.  He was very quiet in person, but later published a well-received book, Vali Myers: A Memoir, available here.

The view from the front door.

More of Vali’s compound.  I think the stone structure in the foreground must have been an oven, and I do remember that the vine-covered recess in the cliff at the rear housed the little trickling waterfall that was the household’s source of water.  

Some chickens – and notice the curious pink animal pen (I think) that was sculpted to look like you’re looking up someone’s nose!  I wish I had asked about this. 

Two of the cheerful little dogs, by the fireplace in the folly.  Vali had famously lived with a fox as a pet in the past, but the fox was long deceased by the time of this visit.  

Farewell to the folly.  It was essential to leave before dark, because of the precipitous journey down  into town.  Of course we had been having such a good time that the light was starting to get dim, so Gianni kindly conducted us back.  

A dramatic and rather terrifying cavern along the path back down.  It is moving to reflect that Vali, in her extraordinary life in “Vali’s valley”, must have been the latest part of a lineage of interesting and mysterious goings-on in the area that stretched back to the time of the Romans and earlier. 

Within two years, Vali had passed away.  She came down with stomach cancer and moved back to Australia, where she died.  A few weeks beforehand, as I’ve just found on Wikipedia, she was profiled from her hospital bed in Melbourne’s newspaper, The Age; the article concluded with her quote:

“I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead,” she says.

“I’m in the hospital now, and I guess I’ll kick the bucket here. Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody. You come into the world and then you go.”

To read more about Vali Myers and to view her art, visit the website of the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust, here.  I am so glad to have met her. 

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